Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin can provoke fierce debate. Some feel that Ray Ellis’ lush arrangements overdressed Holiday, whose voice was battered after years of hard living. Others believe the contrast between the music and the rawness of her vocals added pathos to the 1958 album, her penultimate recording. Pianist Ran Blake and singer Christine Correa interpret the original on When Soft Rains Fall in a manner that pays fitting tribute to the way Holiday wrung emotions from the lyrics she sang.
Much of this material has been covered by umpteen singers over the last six decades, but Correa isn’t interested in just rehashing some warhorses. She understands why Lady in Satin has endured; songs like “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “You’ve Changed” will rip at the heartstrings if they’re done the right way. Opening with the former, Correa evokes Holiday’s untrained voice, not in style but with a similar impact. She offers some optimism with “For Heaven’s Sake,” but “You Don’t Know What Love Is” sounds melancholic. Blake’s rich but unobtrusive accompaniment provides the music with an ideal amount of color, moving from dark entry to a gentle stride in “It’s Easy to Remember.” His foreboding line in “I Get Along Without You Very Well” seems at first like it won’t mesh with Correa’s performance but ultimately adds to the tragedy of the lyric. In addition to the dozen Lady in Satin tracks, the duo combines Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” with original Blake music and interprets Herbie Nichols’ “Lady Sings the Blues.” Blake also gives a fine solo reading to “Big Stuff,” which Holiday recorded earlier in her career.
On Gray Moon, Blake teams up with Frank Carlberg for a two-piano session. Their obvious rapport ensures that the music never gets crowded; in fact, there are times when they sound like one player on one instrument. (The cover offers no info revealing which player is which.) The 16 tracks tackle a wide range of material, from Ellington and Monk classics to a dash of ’70s soul, film music, and several deeply personal Blake originals. All but two last less than five minutes, and Blake and Carlberg use most of their time to gently peel away at melodies.
Slow readings of “Take the A Train” and “’Round Midnight” feel charming, but the duo attacks each succeeding piece within a very similar dynamic range, if not the same languid tempo. Taken a few at a time, a sequence that includes George Russell’s “Stratusphunk,” the Sylvers’ “Wish I Could Talk to You,” and Blake’s “Vanguard” (done solo by Carlberg) makes a compelling program. But an hour-long set requires a closer listen to appreciate fully the way the duo unleashes the tension of “Memphis” or the feeling at the heart of “Short Life of Barbara Monk,” a reflection on Thelonious’ daughter.